COMMENTARY: Contending with the delusional power claims of orthodoxy

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ In making my journey from the pulpit to the pew, I have had to contend with three powerful forces: the energetic few who tend to run churches, the power of church property to distort a sense of mission, and the delusional attitude called orthodoxy.

I want to deal today with the third of those forces. By orthodoxy I don’t mean the particular Christian or Jewish tradition called Orthodox, but that attitude which says,”We know the truth, we know God’s will, and because we are right, we must exercise power.” After leaving parish ministry, I visited several congregations. Most seemed too up-tight to be welcoming. Finally, a friend invited me to his church. The music was stunning and the preaching powerful. They deal with the edifice problem by meeting in an old school. But I had to deal immediately with the question of orthodoxy.

On my first visit, the congregation was doing a responsive reading of the Augsburg Confession, a Reformation-era creed. I agreed with some of its assertions, found others misguided, but mainly I wondered, Is accepting this creed important? Do they approach all of faith with the utter certainty demonstrated by the creed’s author?

As it happens, the functional center of this congregation is music and prayer, not confessional imperialism. So I remain there, firm in the conviction that firm convictions don’t need to get in the way.

Orthodoxy seems to serve three purposes.

One is our insatiable lust for power. Over the years, religious people have engaged in unspeakable cruelty in the name of God. The cruel have used faith to justify torture chambers, death camps, slaughter-the-heathen crusades and hostilities like the Thirty Years War. European invaders lusting for gold prayed first, then murdered and stole, then built churches.

It seems an axiom of history that manipulative leaders will become theologians to disguise their aggressions, and followers will become true-believers to justify their enjoyment of cruelty.

In a similar vein, clever merchants use”Christian”telephone directories to paint business competitors as unworthy, and politicians chase votes at prayer breakfasts.

A second purpose of orthodoxy seems to be avoidance. Jesus taught in parables, not theological assertions, definitions or laws. Parables are intentionally obscure, more like lenses into the realm of God than crisp pictures. They invite reflection and, upon reflection, tend to become disturbing.

True-believers would rather adore their own words and the power of human intellect. They will argue over how much water to use in baptism, not because Jesus had anything to say on the subject, but because the subject can be comprehended, whereas God’s realm defies comprehension, and because arguing about fluid ounces avoids the larger question of baptism into what? Into the death of Jesus? Into radical submission to a power outside oneself?

Religious leaders have responded to immense faith issues growing out of scientific discoveries and societal changes by focusing their flock’s attention on small theological motes: Wine vs. grape juice, NIV vs. NRSV, men-only leadership vs. gender-inclusive, entire sermons built on the meaning of 2,000-year-old Greek words. And all the while people are reeling from vast changes in the human condition.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and mechanization, questions about human life vault far beyond narrow biblical interpretations and liturgical revision.

Finally, orthodoxy blots out surprise and thereby undermines trust. By continually referring to the past, the orthodox behave like the Hebrews trying to hoard God’s manna. They store up ancient words and feast on tidy arguments, while the real challenge is to trust God’s providence each morning. The orthodox argue God is unchanging, and therefore assenting to ancient verities is the essence of faith _ and proprietors of those verities deserve to retain control.

The ancients knew God; so did the Reformation theologian who penned the Augsburg Confession. But God hasn’t stopped revealing himself or providing fresh manna. Nor has that daily bread ever come without the challenge to trust in it, rather than in storehouses made by human hands.

Religious orthodoxy, it seems to me, is both lazy _ easy, predictable, self-serving _ and obstructive. Far more essential is submitting one’s life, including one’s opinions, to a God whose fullness has never been corralled by human intellect or weaponry.

DEA END EHRICH

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